There is a great deal of finger pointing going on in the wake of the tragic death of Aisha Fraser at the hands of her former spouse, disgraced Judge Lance T. Mason. But before we blame the system; the lawyers who got a reduced sentence in the original domestic violence case from August of 2014; the prosecutor who dropped six of the original charges — including two counts of felonious assault, two counts of kidnapping and two counts of endangering children; the judge who imposed a slap on the wrist; Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who wrote a letter to the prosecutor prior to the plea asking for leniency; and Mayor Frank Jackson, who gave Mason a cushy job at City Hall after his release, maybe we should take a serious look in the mirror. Domestic violence is a systemic problem in our society that often goes overlooked, under-reported and under-punished. The case of Lance T. Mason is a classic example.
If Mason’s victim in the August 2014 attack had been a total stranger, there is little doubt that the former judge would still be in jail, looking at the next decade as a guest of the State of Ohio’s penal system. But in this case the victim was his wife.
If Mason’s victim had been a Labrador Retriever, animal rights groups would have packed the courtroom. When the case lingered on the court docket from August 2, 2014 to August 13, 2015, as the case against Mason did (while all the time he was receiving his full judicial salary), pet lovers would have demanded a speedy trial and any judge seeking reelection would have sped up the disposition of the case. When a sentence of 24 months was imposed, and an early release granted after only nine months, animal activists would have protested in front of the court house and maybe even the judge’s house. But in this case the victim was not a dog but the defendant’s wife.
Consider the consternation of the animal rights community when Michael Vick received a 23-month sentence for dog fighting. That sentence was a month shy of the total sentence imposed on Mason and more than twice the time he served. Vick’s victims — canines, not a human.
But our community remained silent — silent except for the four judges and large numbers of prominent lawyers who wrote letters to the sentencing judge asking for Mason’s early release and assuring the court that there was zero chance of recidivism. It’s clear that his supporters and the gaggle of black ministers who attended the proceedings did not take the time to listen to the statement of fact made by Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove at the time of the plea and sentencing when she read from the probation report — without objection from Mason’s lawyers. She related how he punched his wife 20 times with a closed fist after she suggested that he get counseling. How he bashed her head against the dashboard, pulled her hair, jumped out of the car and continued to hit her head against the ground before biting her on her cheek — a cheek that never had feeling again after the attack.
And the judge apparently didn’t even take into consideration the stash of weapons found in Mason’s home at the time of arrest — a stash that included guns, smoke bombs and bulletproof vests.
Just this week the estranged fiancé of an ER doctor at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital came to her job and brutally murdered her, along with two other innocent victims. On the same day a Colorado court imposed a life sentence without possibility of parole on Christopher Watts who killed his pregnant wife and two daughters — burying the girls in oil cans and his wife in a shallow grave, while all the time tearfully making pleas for their safe return. And those are only the victims of domestic violence who made the national news.
From 2001-2012, 6480 American troops were killed in the war in Afghanistan. During the same period 11,706 women were killed by their partners or former partners. NBC News reported that in 2017 an average of three women every day were murdered in America by a domestic partner.
Domestic violence is at epidemic levels nationwide. Aisha Fraser is just one of the thousands of women — and men also — who suffer the same fate every year. Because the person that perpetrated the crimes in the case of Aisha Fraser was a former judge and elected official and because she — the mother of two young girls — was a beloved teacher in well-known school district, her story has gone viral. But every day there are women who suffer the same fate and their stories go largely unnoticed.
I remember one of the last cases that I handled in Cleveland Municipal Court as a visiting judge. A defendant appeared as a probation violator on a charge of domestic violence. I sentenced him to the remainder of his sentence for violating the terms of his probation because he continued to harass the victim. After the sentencing I warned the victim, who had reestablished the relationship, that she had to get away from him. I specifically said, “He is going to kill you.” I will never forget the courtroom bailiffs and court reporter talking to me after the court session. They all said, “He’s going to kill her.” I feared the same thing but having imposed the maximum sentence there was nothing else I could do. I just hoped that she recognized the danger she was in. Several months later he did in fact kill her. I think of her often when I see domestic violence cases reported on the news.
As a society we must work to stop the cycle of violence that lingers in our homes — homes from rural America, the suburbs and the inner city. Pundits would like to blame domestic violence on poverty and see it only as an issue in lower socio-economic classes. Domestic violence is not limited to any race, class or economic group.
Lance Mason was a golden boy whose father was a doctor and his mother an educator. He went to the best of schools including the College of Wooster and the University of Michigan Law School. While many recent graduates struggled for employment, he got a well-paying government job right out of law school. He became the fair-haired boy of the late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, ran her Cleveland office, became a state representative, was appointed to the Common Pleas bench and then elected to a full term. One wonders if somewhere in his background there was some form of violence. Was there something in his past to cause him to strike out — something to cause him to snap back in August of 2014 and again this past Saturday?
The families of recent mass shooting victims have lashed out against the media and people who send prayers in their moment of sorrow. Many survivors clearly state that they don’t want any more thoughts and prayers. They want action regarding gun violence and positive gun control legislation.
We as a society should say the same about domestic violence. Certainly, we will support the family of Aisha Fraser and her children and our prayers go out to them. Generous contributions have been made and continue to be made to a GoFundMe account for their support. But we also must figure out how to stop this wholesale slaughter of women — and men too — at the hands of former partners. Domestic violence is a curse on our society that we must cure before more of our mothers, daughters and sisters are slaughtered at the hands of violent perpetrators who once shared their beds and lives.
There is an adage that says that when you point a finger at someone else your remaining fingers are pointed back at you. There are lots of fingers to be pointed in the tragedy of Aisha Fraser. Let’s not forget the fingers that point back at each one of us. We all share some blame for remaining silent when domestic violence strikes — be it our own home or the one across town.
When Lance Mason faces a judge the next time, the same people who went to Aisha’s vigil should be at that courtroom demanding justice. We can’t remain silent any longer.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.